Myth: Schools are needed due to the slow evolution of human cognition

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This article by Dr Piotr Wozniak is part of SuperMemo Guru series on memory, learning, creativity, and problem solving.

Some educators and anthropologists believe that the evolution cannot keep up with the cognitive demands of modern society. In that belief, children can easily learn walking and speech on their own. They can easily acquire social knowledge, or folk knowledge. However, humans are allegedly inherently weak at mastering academic knowledge, e.g. mathematics.

This harmful myth is used by proponents of direct instruction to justify the existence of schools and the need for teachers. D.C. Geary and D.B. Berch wrote in their book (abridged):

Over the past several millennia, groups have increased substantially in size and economic diversification and some individuals within these groups have discovered better ways of producing food (e.g. agriculture crops), conducting commerce (e.g. monetary systems), and understanding the natural world (i.e. science). These advances have provided many benefits, but many of them have outpaced evolution’s ability to adapt cognitive and motivational systems such that children easily learn the associated competencies. In other words, cultural innovations and brain and cognitive evolution are out of sync, creating a gap between what we are motivated to learn and what we easily learn and the competencies needed to live well in the modern world. Schools are one of these innovations; schools do not exist in traditional societies where day-to-day living does not require reading, writing, or arithmetic. Within the modern world, these are now considered rudimentary competencies, and we expect all children, not just the elite, to acquire them

In reality, declarative knowledge is stored in the neocortex using principles that are no different in between the shape of a milk bottle, and the shape of a tesseract. The key difference between the two is only in the distance that separates them from primary perception. All abstract models are encoded using the same principles as the model of a friend's face.

There is no cognitive deficit. As for "motivation system", all primary motivation in learning is an expression of need (see: Knowledge valuation network), and it is little wonder than we seem more motivated to learn the difference between a friend and a foe than we are motivated to learn trigonometry. Still, there is no discontinuity in the toolset and strategies for learning trigonometry as soon as the need to learn arises.

If schools provide fake motivation, we end up with fake learning

If the myth of human limits was to be true, we would never witness a discovery. No school would ever teach about a new discovery because if the teacher knew it, the discovery would not be new. The authors circumvent that paradox by a claim that not all student have the cognitive capacity of Isaac Newton. In reality, all healthy kids have the basic cognitive toolset to reach the levels of Principia. It is the obstacles and tribulations of modern life that provide a never-ending distraction in this process. One of the most destructive forces that prevent the emergence of more Newtons is school itself. Newton's brain soared in times of freedom sparked by the plague. Kids are bound at school in the morning, and by homework or household chores in the evening. As a result they provide an illusion they are incapable of self-instruction. This way the enslavement continues and the myth is perpetuated even by the seemingly most informed minds in science.

I am personally pretty adamant about the value of free learning due to the fact that in my decades of formal education, I have never tangibly benefited from being taught. Just the opposite, compulsory schooling stole decades of my life. It has also contributed strongly to my drive for writing this book

For the opposite, and equally misguided thoughts about the evolution of the brain in the context of schooling see: Evolution will breed a better student


Quoted excerpts come from the following reference:

Authors: D.C. Geary and D.B. Berch

Book: Evolutionary Perspectives on Child Development and Education

Date: 2016

Link: https://www.amazon.com/Evolutionary-Perspectives-Development-Education-Psychology/dp/3319299840